Ed Tilousi knelt down next to the crystal-clear turquoise creek. The only sounds were the gurgling of the current and the sawing of cicadas in a pecan nut tree as the hot sun made the red rock canyon walls towering above him glow.
Downstream, the creek becomes a 100ft-high waterfall, tumbling into a brilliant blue pool then making more cascades before it empties into the Colorado river running through the Grand Canyon.
“The water talks to us, it has a voice you can hear all the time. We drink it, we depend on it. If it gets poisoned we are finished,” he said.
Tilousi is vice-chairman of the Havasupai Native Americans, a tiny community and the only one that lives within the depths of the Grand Canyon.
The sole water source in their remote home of Supai Village is the pristine creek. It comes from seeps and springs gravitating out of a vast aquifer, or natural underground reservoir, in the Arizona bedrock on the southern edge of the canyon.
The Havasupai water their beans, corn, melon, peach trees, horses and mules squeezed on to the strip of land they inhabit between the sandstone rock faces.
Tourists from all over the world snap up the limited number of visitor permits made available annually by the Havasupai and hike down a nine-mile trail in order to bathe in the fabled waters.
What they don’t realize is that way above, on that plateau of bedrock within the Grand Canyon watershed, sitting on top of the same aquifer, is a uranium mine preparing to go into production.
The mining company plans to drill down 1,475ft to extract high-grade uranium ore, then truck it 250 miles by road to their processing mill in Utah.
The Canadian company, Energy Fuels Inc, pledges to operate safely, but the Havasupai and others say that’s impossible to promise, especially as too little is known about subterranean water flow.
They argue that any contamination of the groundwater from the mining operations will end up in Havasu Creek, destroying an ancient way of life if they leave the canyon, sickening them if they stay. Significant pollution would also ruin the integrity of the waterfalls and could ultimately threaten the health of the 40 million people downriver who quench their thirst from the mighty Colorado River.